With the tides of modernisation encroaching on some of Asia’s most timeless cities, some destinations are worth seeing sooner, rather than later. We gathered our experts in Asia to decide which cities and top spots you should have on your 2015 Asia travel destination bucket list.
Check the hottest travel lists this year and you’ll see that 2015 is all about travelling to Asia – and for good reason. For many, just thinking about the word “Asia” conjures up images of untouched landscapes, chaotic streets and exotic cuisines that make the stomach growl in anticipation.
But Asia is also a region that is on the move, from new frontiers opening to tourism for the first time, to booming, fast-paced urban jungles sprinting into the modern age. Some destinations in Asia are as quickly evolving as they are fascinating – and if you don’t get there soon, you might miss your chance to see them in the charming state that made them a destination in the first place. For the ultimate list of must-see Asia destinations to visit in 2015, these are the destinations worth exploring before they’re swept away in a flurry of modernisation.
Hanoi is one of Southeast Asia’s great wonders. Having escaped largely unscathed from multiple wars, the city is now rapidly transforming, making it an exotic fusion of East and West. The city’s chaotic Old Quarter bursts at the seams with street food vendors hawking fresh banh mi and merchants selling everything from metal beams to handmade silks. The city skyline is also peppered with exquisite French colonial structures and antique archways that date back to its days as an imperial citadel.
But in between these vestiges of the old Hanoi, visitors can also see a modern city that is slowly emerging, with trendy coffee shops and quirky boutiques mushrooming across the city and catering to its booming middle-class. Much of Hanoi’s glorious French-colonial architecture is being demolished to make way for shiny new buildings, and locals in Hanoi will attest to just how much the cityscape has changed in only a few short years. This is certainly a destination that will look entirely different within the next decade – and cements this historic city as a must-see destination in Asia for 2015.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Even visitors from afar can smell the ambition in Ho Chi Minh City. A litany of shiny skyscrapers leaping into the sky, a new metro system and plans to build a second airport are only the tip of the iceberg for the city that is fast becoming a world-class metropolis.
In the central business districts, some of this development has come at a cost to heritage buildings and the city’s street culture, which has gravitated to its outer districts. Much like Hanoi, however, symbols of the Old Saigon remain, albeit in grittier form befitting Vietnam’s urban capital. However, tourists are a big beneficiary of the city’s transformation, with more visitor-friendly infrastructure and a colourful mish-mash of bars, restaurants and a thumping nightlife that won’t be found anywhere else in Vietnam. Now that the city is at a charming in between of better tourism infrastructure but with some of its French-colonial heart still intact, now is the time to visit this vibrant southern hub.
Once closed off to the rest of the world, the door is creaking open in this former military dictatorship and visitors are pouring in. In the commercial capital, visitors can witness for themselves how quickly things are changing, with even simple (but once forbidden) freedoms now proudly on display. Posters of the country’s most famous dissident, Aung San Suu Kyi, can be found all over the city, while mobile phone penetration is skyrocketing. Glowing gold-leaf stupas dominate the views of Yangon, a mish-mash of commercial buildings, crumbling colonial buildings and street sellers hawking everything from artwork to Burmese fish rice. With the lifting of economic sanctions by the U.S., investors are pouring in, which means things are fast changing in Myanmar’s largest city.
Bagan’s inimitable landscape has dazzled travellers, merchants and explorers for centuries. Based on the banks of the Irrawaddy River, Bagan plays host to thousands of temples, pagodas and stupas dating back to the 11th Century. But while the temples of Old Bagan are not recognised by UNESCO – primarily due to some clumsy restoration works – it is still one of the world’s great archaeological treasures.
Despite the country opening to Western tourists only three years ago, its pagodas are already crawling with visitors from around the region, with an increasing amount from further afield. New Bagan, located nearby, is also fast transforming into a commercial tourist hub with a collection of luxury hotels under construction. Putting that aside, watching the sunset from one of Bagan’s largest temples, the Shwesandaw Pagoda, is something you won’t be forgetting anytime soon. Bagan still holds a certain timeless charm in 2015, but there’s no saying just how long it will last. This one is definitely a top contender for your 2015 Asia destination list.
Inle Lake, Myanmar
Located in the heart of Myanmar’s Shan state, Inle Lake is the country’s second-largest lake with nearly 30 species of fish that won’t found anywhere else in the world. But it’s Inle Lake’s rustic charm that will make you fall in love over and over again. Floating gardens growing everything from cucumbers to tomatoes can be found next to teetering stilt villages at the lake’s centre. Inside, you’ll find locals busily crafting metals over hot coals, weaving brightly coloured fabrics or even assembling the lake’s famous herbal cigars.
But most beautiful of all, perhaps, are the resident Intha fishermen that can be found scattered across this vast lake. Balancing on one leg on the stern, the Intha cast fishing nets with their hands while wrapping the other leg around the oar to paddle. Like much of Asia, though, these agricultural lifestyles are slowly vanishing as those in rural areas migrate to bigger cities for better prospects. With the future of the lake’s people at such an important cultural crossroads, this is one destination you should put at the top of your travel bucket list.
Wild and rugged, Sumatra is the ultimate travel destination for adventure junkies. The sixth largest island in the world, it is also possesses one of the richest ecosystems on the planet, home to volcanoes, lush rainforests and some very idyllic beaches. The island is also home to an incredible range of wildlife, ranging from orangutans to the rare Sumatran tiger, rhinoceroses and colonies of Asian elephants.
But it’s Sumatra’s opportunities for cultural immersion that some may find most alluring. With more than 40 million people living on the island, the variety of cultures on display is simply mind boggling, from the Chinese residents of Bangka-Belitung, to the Muslim communities of Aceh to the primitive tribal clans of Nias. Sumatra’s relatively off-the-grid status and earthy exploits also make it the ultimate place to avoid the crowds and disappear into the wild. Just like any magical jungle in Asia, though, Sumatra is under the same amount of pressure from encroaching urbanisation – and the threat of rubber plantations – as much of the region’s natural wonders.
Siem Reap, Cambodia
Anyone who has ever seen the sun rise over the ancient temples and ruins of Angkor Wat will testify to its beauty. This incredible complex is one of the largest religious sites in the world and is one of the main reasons to visit Siem Reap – but it’s not the only reason. Dotted with fabulous cafes, terrific restaurants and thousands of shopping stalls, it is a wonderful way to experience Asia that without feeling too overwhelming.
The city is a must see for anyone wanting to get a real flavour of this amazing region, but it’s influx of tourism contributing to a quickly changing city, for better and for worse. If visiting Siem Reap is on your bucket list, make your visit here count for something bigger by choosing to support local businesses and NGOs here that are helping to create a brighter future for the city.
Luang Prabang, Laos
An oasis in the style of old Asia, Luang Prabang is the must-see destination in Laos. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is a beautiful microcosm of Laos’ rich and tumultuous history as part of French Indochina. Gorgeous colonial French architecture is mixed with golden-roofed temples that reflect the nation’s strong Buddhist culture, which you can see at sunrise when monks from nearby monasteries make their way through the street collecting alms.
Luang Prabang is also the perfect place from which to journey further into the Laos countryside – a trip you’ll have to do by boat. Muang Ngoi is a destination well worth visiting, and one that is still well off of the tourist trail. Laos is still untouched and magical, but it likely won’t stay that way for long. Explore this spiritual mecca before the rest of the world realizes what they’re missing.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
Chiang Mai’s cool bars, hotels and restaurants make it a popular destination with travellers, but it is also outside the main tourist drag where you will have an opportunity to experience the real Thailand, without skimping on the fun. With over 300 ancient temples, the area is steeped in history, but for the adventure-lover, there’s also plenty to keep you active.
Chiang Mai, however, is at the centre of Thailand’s international development, with plenty of focus on making Chiang Mai the hub for digital entrepreneurship and creative industries in Thailand. This new strategy for growth is putting Chiang Mai on the map for many international workers, which will inevitably change the nature of the city once the tide shifts. If you want to see this northern hub in its still-lesser visited charm, head there sooner rather than later.
This bustling metropolis is known for representing modern Asia, with its constantly changing skyline a symbol of the business potential of this region. But now there are signs of change, with its nightlife becoming increasingly active and liberal. There is so much to see that it can be hard to navigate it on your own – whether it is the mega shopping malls, its beaches or historical sites like the Thian Hock Keng temple.
Singapore is a destination best explored with a healthy dose of history, for a closer look at how it rose from a humble fishing village to a booming economic hub. One of the best places for a glimpse at Singapore’s past life is on the rustic island of Palau Ubin. Who knows how long these vestiges of the city’s past life will be around, though, and it’s worth exploring them now before they disappear behind a cityscape of towers and glittering urban facades.
Explore these cities before they change forever. Customised tours throughout Asia get you closer to the cultures of the region’s best and most fascinating cities.